Wisdom: The Fruit of Maturity
I’m now old enough to be ready to reject the culture of youth. I was struck again by the limitations of youth when I was helping a high school junior with a school paper on the liberal arts this past weekend. The difficulty he had conceptualizing the rather abstract categories required for the discussion took me back, way back, to my own high school days.
I distinctly remember an excellent eleventh grade English class in which we studied a number of great works of American literature, including some that were primarily dramas of the mind and spirit (for example, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Melville’s Moby Dick). To the teen-aged mind, the action was limited and the heroes largely indecipherable. Boys particularly have this problem. The subtleties of thoughts, feelings and motives are largely lost on them. It’s hard to make the transition from following external actions to reflecting on thoughts and feelings. Discerning principles in the midst of reflection is even tougher.
The primary cause of this difficulty is that the human mind takes time to mature. We see little self-reflection and abstraction in children because they simply aren’t capable of it. As soon as they begin to develop this capacity in their teen years, their first conclusion is that they alone understand everything and everybody else (apart from their infallible special friends and unlikely gurus) is stupid. The great teen error lies more in the first assertion than in the second. All of us are pretty stupid. But we’re even stupider when we think we know everything.
In the first heady days of reflection and abstraction, we stop taking everything for granted and start testing things in our minds. Unfortunately, we’re not only limited by lack of mental maturity but by lack of experience. In fact, we have so little experience that we can’t even recognize how limited our own experience is. Nor do we yet know how non-normative our own limited experience may be, nor how utterly irrelevant our own feelings are. We aren’t very good at successfully separating our own experiences and feelings from true reflection. Our powers of abstraction are still quite limited; we stand outside ourselves to attain objectivity only seldom and with the greatest difficulty. In consequence, we don’t realize how much our own experiences and feelings shape what we inevitably perceive as independent thought.
The Power of Reflection
While we’re young, we also frequently become impatient with those who try to point out how little we see. Fools (even young and inadvertent ones) project their folly onto others, whom they do not suffer gladly. Given time, most of us will acquire a greater capacity for self-reflection as our minds mature and our experience increases. This is a normal process of growth and development until, sometime between twenty and thirty perhaps, we begin to respond consistently to the world with something like budding wisdom rather than mere capriciousness. The process is hastened by humility and retarded by its lack. In a culture which breeds individualistic pride, progress can be pretty slow. Sometimes it is non-existent.
Nonetheless, during young adulthood, most of us begin to live according to hard-won principles, and begin to apply these principles to a cohesive understanding of the world around us. These informed convictions are very healthy, but their very solidity can still often lead us astray. While we really may see the external world fairly clearly and judge it fairly accurately, we often retain a blind spot when it comes to understanding ourselves. The ability to properly assess external situations strengthens our confidence that we can do better. But when our self-understanding is weak, we overlook our own Achilles heel. For this reason, while we may judge the deficiencies of others rightly, we too often also judge harshly. Out goes the baby with the bathwater.
The Quality of Mercy
Then personal failure steps in. By the time we hit forty, we’ve generally experienced enough personal failure to force us to revise our opinions, starting with ourselves. We grow more aware of our own weaknesses and imperfections, and more attuned to the hard fact that despite our best efforts to change the world, it is still going on in much the same way. At this stage most of us begin to see the failures and shortcoming of others as familiar faces: we too have known them or their kindred. If we’re healthy, we don’t define ourselves by our failures. Now we stop defining others that way too.
Granted, some of us never get this far. We are lenient with ourselves and harsh with our neighbors in direct proportion to our own pride and selfishness, our own lack of spiritual growth. But rarely does spiritual growth come without hard experience. The sheer lengthening of our lives, with all the attendant possibilities for failure, suffering and events beyond our control, forces us either to damn ourselves or to make allowances for others. In making these allowances, we recognize the truth at last: All of us are sinners, all in need of God’s mercy, all suffering, all worthy of hope and even of love.
By now, depending on who we are, we may be in our fifties. Youth has slipped away, but we no longer miss it. Far better to be older and wiser! We may even become a trifle impatient with youth: so quick to act, so slow to reflect, so unlikely to understand. But impatience too is unjustified. Do we condemn ourselves for having taken so long to temper both our expectations and our judgments? Have we not just spent forty or more years learning something as basic as sympathy? Let us not lose it now!
Wisdom may be possible for the young, but only by a genuine miracle in which God’s free gift overcomes the immense handicap of chronological brevity. The young are not our future in any of the senses of the slogans. The young are the future only for the very same reason that they cannot possibly be the present. They are our future because the future will find them no longer young. The only guarantor of the future is wisdom, and wisdom ordinarily requires age. Perhaps we should prize age—and wisdom—more.
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